How Will Demography Drive California's Destiny From Now On?

Demography drives destiny, the old saying goes. And in the past few months, we've gotten a couple of pieces of important demographic news that are likely to help shape the future of California – if we can understand what they mean.

The first one is pretty historic: Early in 2014 – that is, along around now – the number of Latinos in California will surpass the number of whites. (Each group has about 40% of the population.) This trend is likely to keep going for the foreseeable future – the latest estimate is that by mid-century, there will be 10 million more Latinos than whites in the state. And there's a ripple effect coming along behind it. For example: Just a few days ago, the University of California reported that, for the first time, the system had admitted more in-state Latinos than in-state whites. ( This is an enormously important symbolic step, given the fact that Latinos have been running so far behind whites in educational attainment – and, as a result, prosperity – than whites.

The second one is a little less surprising but, nevertheless, historic: It's going to take a lot longer to get to 50 million Californians than we previously thought: 35 more years. The Department of Finance's Demographics Research Unit now believes that we won't hit 50 million until 2049. ( The bottom line: We're going to see a lot slower population growth than the state previously predicted.

So, a California that's predominantly Latino and that's growing much more slowly than anybody previously expected. What does that add up to?

The slowing population growth could potentially make it more difficult for the state to provide the public infrastructure necessary to provide a high quality of life for its residents in the future – in large part because we have built up such an infrastructure deficit since the passage of Proposition 13 more than 35 years ago. Population growth has often driven new development, which in turn has often financed new infrastructure, so that things seem to be getting better.

But as the chart below shows, DOF's population growth projection over the next 40 years – which adds up to about 300,000 people per year – actually looks pretty realistic. I've often made the point that since 1940 – that's almost three-quarters of a century – California has averaged an increase of about 500,000 people per year. But if you break it down by decade, what you'll see is that this average was spiked by a couple of boom periods – the great middle-class population boom after World War II and the great Latino baby boom of the 1980s and ‘90s. The 300,000 figure represents the historic average, not counting the booms.

But what's interesting is that it's the boom times – not the normal times – that stimulate extraordinary infrastructure investment and, often, the tax increases required to fund them. The postwar boom led to the construction of now-famous Pat Brown triad of the freeways, the state water project, and a vast increase in higher education facilities. The ‘80s and ‘90s boom led to a vast increase in rail transit construction on K-12 schools. The bust periods, by contrast, led to retrenching. California's population growth hit net-zero in the early ‘70s – just about the only time in postwar history that happened – and only a few years later Proposition 13 came along, virtually halting infrastructure construction for a decade or more.

So if DOF is right – and there are no population booms ahead for California – then we probably won't see a big increase in public investment that will catch us up, right? The historic trend would seem to suggest that this is true. But that brings us to the political role of California's growing Latino population.

As my friend Dowell Myers at the University of Southern California ( always likes to say, the important point about the ethnic change is not how many Latinos there will be in California's future, but what it means to be a Latino in California in the future.

We don't know for sure what it will mean to be a Latino in California in the future. But here's what we know about what it means now: Latinos have different attitudes about government services and public investment than whites do. Polling consistently finds that Latinos are more supportive of higher taxes for government investment – especially jobs, schools, and housing – and more supportive of unions. In other words, Latinos in California today are, essentially, New Deal Democrats: They want the government to help them with upward mobility. That could lead to support for increased investment in infrastructure and other public services even if population grows slowly and steadily, as DOF projects.

Of course, all this could change. There could be an unexpected spike in population. The world economy could change such that increased public investment doesn't lead to more prosperity and more upward mobility. Or the big bubble of Latinos moving through the chronological cycle now could change their political attitudes as they change. That, after all, is what happened to the whites – the same folks who voted for Pat Brown's expansion voted for Proposition 13 and against practically everything in the 1980s.

That kind of change is probably a long way off. With Latinos focused on upward mobility, California may pull itself out of the current infrastructure deficit – and set itself up for a few more decades of prosperity.